Portrait of an Artist as a Solitary Woman

The Lady of Shalott is the quintessential female artist. At least, she has been for me.

As represented in Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott sits in her tower and “weaves by night and day /A magic web.” She is also heard singing — two distinct artistic endeavors. My undergrad professor explained that Tennyson refashioned the Lady from previous representations, adding these details to transform her into an artist.

What kind seemed unimportant to me: the arts of singing and of weaving on a loom could just as easily have been substituted, in my opinion, for a writer weaving a web of words.

What was important was that she was a female artist, alone with her art.

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write fiction, a woman needed money and a room of one’s own. That was in 1929, and a lot has changed since then. Many women have since had the advantage of a room of her own.

Me, for instance.

Within my office, I write from my desk. My bookcases line three walls, and I’ve posted a quote by Walter Benjamin on the outside of my shut door: “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.” I try to practice this as I write from my room of one’s own.

I write on this dark morning in my office-library, and look out my window at a layer of fresh snow on the hedge and fence separating our place from our backyard neighbour’s, outlines I more imagine than properly discern in the pre-dawn light.

The view from my window is very unlike that of the Lady of Shalott’s who saw the Arthurian world outside her window as reflections through her mirror, which she then reproduced as she wove them into her art on her loom.

I get distracted with the view reguarly. We still haven’t put curtains up, and as my desk is directly in front of the window, I both see and inevitably am seen over the hedge and fence shared by neighbours who have vertical blinds on their windows.

I think of another, previous room of one’s own, my “tower” in my third floor apartment (which I so-named, though it wasn’t a tower proper at all) which I wrote in several years ago, a place I mentioned in Against Retrospection and Change. I sat in that front room  and wrote with the world beyond me, below me. I kept a small print of Waterhouse’s painting of the Lady of Shalott fastened to my wall.

I think about this as I sit now in my office.

My professor’s interpretation of Tennyson’s poem (which I’d memorized after having watched Anne of Green Gables as a child and looking it up) put it into my head that in order to be a successful woman writer, I needed to be a solitary woman with a place to write. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I referred to my previous writing space as my “tower,” not unlike the Lady’s artistic studio.

Madeleine L’Engle likewise refers to her writing space as a “tower” in A Circle of Quiet: The Crosswicks Journal, a room which is over the garage at her Crosswicks home. It once had been used for chickens before they cleaned it out upon purchasing it. “It was almost fifteen years before we were able to turn it into my study,” L’Engle writes, “and it was supposed to be Absolutely Private. Nobody was allowed up without special invitation. The children called it he Ivory Tower, and it is still called the Tower, though it is neither ivory nor private, nor, in fact, tower.” The summer in which she was writing this book, she explains that her tower has been commandeered by her future son-in law as he needed a place to write his doctoral thesis. It evidently was only a room of her own sometimes.

Annie Dillard writes, “The study affords ample room for one. One who is supposed to be writing books.” She write about two of her writing spaces in The Writing Life: her pine shed on Cape Cod, and the small study room in a university library on the second floor where she used to write. She eventually had to lower the blinds to not be distracted by the  ever-intriguing view of a campus parking lot. (She sketched it instead and pasted this on the blinds and would look at this whenever she “wanted a sense of the world.”)

“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided,” she wrote. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” In the margin of my copy of The Writing Life, I’ve carefully penciled beside this, “I don’t agree.” But whether this was in principle or reality, I do not know. (Perhaps I still wanted room with a view.)

Anne Morrow Lindbherg, as she details in Gift from the Sea, had her writing space which she was renting for a few days of vacation, which she describes this way: “Here I live in a bare sea-shell of a cottage. No heat, no telephone, no plumbing to speak of, no hot water, a two-burner oil stove, no gadgets to go wrong. No rugs. There were some, but I rolled them up the first day. . . . No curtains. I do not need them for privacy; the pines around my house are enough protection.” This description of the bare cottage both reminds me of and goes against Dillard’s adages of having a small space in which to write, and not having a room with a view.

I recall having read years ago, in her Selected Journals or one of the many memoirs written about her, that when L.M. Montgomery was teaching in her native Prince Edward Island in a one-room schoolhouse, she would wake up early at wherever she happened to be boarding, and write in an icy house for an hour before trudging off to her day job as schoolmarm. And then later, married and living in Ontario as a famous writer, she would steal away to write for a couple of hours each day. She recalled her two little boys putting their fingers under her shut door, sending flowers and love notes and other signs of affection, though I do not know where I once read this.

It occurs to me that there are several examples of women writers who have a room of one’s own, and some even with a view. But it is “with a view” that has caused me to realize that these rooms are not the isolated spaces that perhaps we’d like to view them. We can never completely escape from the world.

Rather, each room has its context: the Lady of Shalott’s was mythical; Viriginia Woolf’s was perhaps still imaginary; Madeleine L’Engle’s had once been a chicken coop; Annie Dillard’s had shut out the real world; Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s had only been lent to her for her vacation; and L.M. Montgomery’s were temporary before marriage, and afterwards, had been infiltrated by the outside world literally pushing in under the door.

Is it ever possible for a woman to have a room of one’s own?

I’ve had my own tower room, yes, and currently have the office-library from which I presently write. These have been privileged places. But they, too, are surrounded by the contexts of responsibility, of limited time, and of limited energy.

As I think of my own writing, I concede that I cannot really concentrate to write unless I am sitting at my desk. I think this probably has less to do with the fact that it’s in a “room of my own,” and more to do with the fact that I’ve so strongly associated writing with this room, that it’s now become a cue for my brain, like the way the routine of reading stories, brushing teeth, and singing songs can cue a baby to prepare for sleep.

Of course, I have written in many settings (why else would I bring some paper and a pen to almost anywhere I go?). But for the serious, sustained writing, I often feel I need my office — my space that’s reserved for a certain kind of work.

It is more than the considerations of physical space that we think of when we talk about a room of one’s own. It’s as much an emotional or psychological space as any.

There are many more questions to answer than I’ve asked, and even more answers that need to be pondered. I’ve only posed a few, and have tentatively answered even fewer.

Having a room of one’s own cannot be the answer to it all: rather, it gives a space, if only for a while in scraps of time, for us to write a few lines.


Question: How do you navigate the need for solitude to write, while living in the context of your surroundings?